Thanks to our dear friend, Fr. Ernesto Obregon for contributing his insights on liturgy from the Orthodox perspective today.
I encourage you to read his blog, Orthocuban.
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Liturgy is not simply what we habitually do
It is common to speak of liturgy as though it is little more than what we habitually do, thus on a comment on another website, someone commented:
And: is liturgy the same as “form?” Would a Baptist church that still plays hymns and has a set format still be liturgical? I think the answer is yes.
But, when we—meaning Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, etc–speak of Liturgy, that is not simply what we mean. We also do not simply mean that Liturgy is only the work of the people, as though by doing a linguistic analysis of ancient Greek we can ignore the later use of the word in its Hebrew context.
What do I mean by its Hebrew context? — after all it is GREEK! Well, let us look at a quote about the use of the word liturgy in its Greek/Hebrew context:
Liturgy (leitourgia) is a Greek composite word meaning originally a public duty, a service to the state undertaken by a citizen. Its elements are leitos (from leos = laos, people) meaning public, and ergo (obsolete in the present stem, used in future erxo, etc.), to do. From this we have leitourgos, “a man who performs a public duty”, “a public servant”, often used as equivalent to the Roman lictor; then leitourgeo, “to do such a duty”, leitourgema, its performance, and leitourgia, the public duty itself.
At Athens the leitourgia was the public service performed by the wealthier citizens at their own expense, such as the office of gymnasiarch, who superintended the gymnasium, that of choregus, who paid the singers of a chorus in the theatre, that of the hestiator, who gave a banquet to his tribe, of the trierarchus, who provided a warship for the state. The meaning of the word liturgy is then extended to cover any general service of a public kind. In the Septuagint it (and the verb leitourgeo) is used for the public service of the temple (e.g., Exodus 38:27; 39:12, etc.). Thence it comes to have a religious sense as the function of the priests, the ritual service of the temple (e.g., Joel 1:9, 2:17, etc.). In the New Testament this religious meaning has become definitely established. In Luke 1:23, Zachary goes home when “the days of his liturgy” (ai hemerai tes leitourgias autou) are over. In Hebrews 8:6, the high priest of the New Law “has obtained a better liturgy”, that is a better kind of public religious service than that of the Temple.
So in Christian use liturgy meant the public official service of the Church, that corresponded to the official service of the Temple in the Old Law.
Let me note several points.
First, it is common in various circles to speak of liturgy as the “work of the people.” However, note that the classical Greek usage was not of the work of the people, but the contributions of those who were well-off who supported public works. Note that though one could argue from its component parts that leitourgia meant the “work of the people,” the actual usage of the word in classical Greek was not that of the “work of the people,” but the work of some, and the compound words derived from that spoke not of the public, but actually of a personal duty rendered on behalf of or for the public, in the form of the State.
This points out the problem of using merely linguistic etymology to decide the meaning of words. It can be every bit as misleading as saying that the word “handsome” means that it fits well in the hand. That was its original meaning, after all. But to try to claim that a handsome man fits well in the hand (yes I can hear the horrible puns coming) is as ludicrous as claiming that somehow the Church of the New Testament understood the word liturgy as meaning merely the “work of the people.”
Second, whatever the meaning of the word “liturgy” in classical Greek, it is irrelevant. When a word crosses over from one culture into another culture, the important point is how the receiving culture views that word, not how the contributing culture used to view it. This is where many make a serious mistake; this is where Strong’s concordance has some serious limits; this is where philological studies can lead people very much astray.
The word liturgy crossed over from Greek culture to Hebrew culture, and then the Hebrew understanding of the word crossed back into Church culture — whether Middle Eastern, Greek, or Roman. So, what was the Hebrew understanding of the Greek word, “liturgy”? The place to look is the Septuagint, the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. You see, when a translation is done, the translators choose the words in the guest language that they think best represent the concept in the original language. Thus the important definition is NOT the definition in the guest language or even the philological definition. The only relevant definition is the definition in the original language, and the concept of why the translators used the word in the guest language to translate the concept from the original language.
It is in not understanding that the only relevant definition is the definition in the original language that so many make a mistake. So, what is the relevant definition of leitourgia in the Hebrew culture of the Septuagint? And, what does that tell us about the Church’s concept of the word liturgy?
In the first part, I said that we cannot simply look at the linguistic roots of a word in order to understand its current meaning, particularly if the word is a loan word from one language to another language. “Liturgy” is one such example, as I pointed out that we get the word “liturgy” not from its use in classical Greek but from its use by the Jewish translators of the Old Testament. As they translated from Hebrew to Greek, they picked the word “liturgy” not for its exact meaning in Greek, but rather because its meaning in Greek approximated what they wished to convey about the Hebrew word it translated.
And what they wished to convey was not the “work of the people” but the work of the priest on behalf of the people. As I pointed out in the quote I cited, the usage of the word is that of the public service of a private individual. That service was given to the State in order that the people might have a chorus, might have a new warship, might have a gymnasium, etc. It is no surprise that this is the word chosen by the Hebrew translators to convey the idea of the priest doing his public service to God on behalf of the people.
This is the meaning when the noun liturgy, or its verb form, is used in the Old Testament in Greek (the Septuagint), and then in the New Testament. For instance, Joel 1:9 says, “… ye priests that serve at the altar of the Lord.” oi iereis oi leitourgountes. Literally that means something closer to, “you priests that are liturgicizing …” or performing their public service for the people (or on behalf of the people). When an ancient Greek engaged in his liturgy, his public service, the people received the benefit of the choir or the warship or the gymnasium. In the same way, when the priest of the Old Testament performed his public service, the people received the benefits of his prayer and sacrifice.
In the New Testament, that same idea crosses over. We can tell that because the same concept is used in the same way. Thus, in the Gospel of Luke 1:23, Zacharias goes home when “the days of his liturgy” (ai hemerai tes leitourgias autou) are over. That is, Zacharias goes home when his public service on behalf (or for) the people is done. He performs his service so that the people might receive the benefit of it. This is not the work of the people, but the work for the people.
This idea goes on and, in a sense, reaches its peak in the Book of Hebrews. As I cited yesterday, “In Hebrews 8:6, the high priest of the New Law ‘has obtained a better liturgy,’ that is a better kind of public religious service than that of the Temple.” Here you see the concept of liturgy now having taken on the shades of meaning that we are accustomed to hearing. This Scripture now speaks of a “better liturgy” with the implication that there is a right way to celebrate a liturgy and a not as good way, or even potentially a wrong way. But, it goes farther and begins to use the word “liturgy” more as “Liturgy,” as we do when we speak about the Divine Liturgy, as something that has been passed on to our Great High Priest (by God the Father) and something that we are supposed to keep as it was passed on to us by Our Lord Jesus Christ.
No, I am not in any way claiming that Our Lord gave us the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, or of Peter, or of Saint Basil, etc. But, Saint Paul makes it very clear to the Corinthians that:
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”
Saint Paul’s whole point in most of 1 Corinthians 11 is that we have received directions that ought to be kept in the way in which they were delivered. So, this idea of getting drunk at the Liturgy is wrong, etc. Notice that his emphasis in this chapter is on the Liturgy. It is a powerful work of God, and he treats it in the same way that the Ark of the Covenant is treated in the Old Testament. He neither speaks about the elders nor about the people, other than to chastise them.
Rather, his entire point is that if you misjudge this Liturgy, you may end up sick, or even sleep. This is now clearly the worship service, the Liturgy, as its own thing, and something that is much more than simply people gathering to worship. It is connected to the Liturgy of the Heavens so strongly that it is powerful, just like the Ark of the Covenant was powerful, and just like the person who touched the Ark of the Covenant inappropriately died, so could those who misjudge the Liturgy of the New Testament. Here you can see the link between the better Liturgy of Hebrews and the teachings that Saint Paul received, which he felt constrained to pass on, and the power of God manifested just like it manifested with the Ark of the Covenant and with the Temple after it was built, during its dedication.
One final note: the verb form of liturgy is found in the calling of Saints Barnabas and Paul to be missionaries. As they were liturgicizing, as they were performing their public duty on behalf of the people, they were called. Here you see the same power of God at work as in 1 Corinthians 11. The difference is that since they judged the Body and Blood of Christ correctly, they received a blessing, instead of the curse that those who misjudged received in Corinthians. This again points to the Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper as being its own powerful thing and not merely whatever habits of worship people fall into.
Liturgy is not simply the work of the people. It is something else. The priest is the individual who performs a public service on behalf of the people, and the people receive a benefit because of his service. And he does it using the “better Liturgy” which our Great High Priest received. The people join in the Liturgy, together with their priest. We offer ourselves to the Lord through the Liturgy. But, the Liturgy is not simply and merely whatever habits of worship people fall into. The Liturgy offers life through the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.